Writer and Director: Alan Ayckbourn
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
On tour this year is The Ayckbourn Ensemble, consisting of three separate shows with interlocking casts. Two are full length plays – a revival of his 1992 play, Time Of My Life, and a new play, Arrivals &Departures, – and the third consists of two one act farces to be presented together under the umbrella name of Farcicals. Ayckbourn explains that he found himself writing Arrivals &Departures with lots of short scenes and that that led him to think in miniature, leading to the writing of these two plays.
Both farces feature the same two couples: Penny and Reggie, and Lottie and Teddy. The basic premise behind each is the same – the couples are having a party in a garden, Lottie (Sarah Stanley)is a somewhat plain lady who believes she was punching above her weight when she captured the heart of, and married, the womanising Teddy (played on this occasion by understudy Peter Halpin). Penny (Elizabeth Boag) is her confident best friend from school who is quite clear on how marriages should be organised and is not shy to give Lottie the benefit of her advice. Both men are rather slow on the uptake, somewhat at odds with their successful business lives as a car sales executive (Reggie – played by Kim Wall) and lawn mower mogul (Teddy). In the first, Chloe With Love, Lottie is worried that Teddy’s eye might be roving again and is given a startling makeover by Penny. Lottie pretends to be Chloe, a hitherto unknown schoolfriend of Penny, using her allure to recapture their youth. Suspension of disbelief is stretched almost to breaking point when Teddy fails to recognise his own wife, albeit in unusual garb and with a deepened, sexier voice, and hilarity ensues. At least, that’s what I imagine the script says.
In the second, The Kidderminster Affair, Lottie confides in Penny that she is quite convinced that Teddy is having an affair having found evidence of a clandestine assignation in a hotel in Kidderminster. In fact, the truth turns out to be nearer home than anticipated so that, as Teddy tries to cover his tracks, the tissue of lies and half-truths are unwittingly unravelled by Reggie (who never quite catches on) and, well, more hilarity ensues.
Except that neither play is especially hilarious. Ayckbourn’s writing is tight and his directorial touch sure, but the funny moments give rise to wry smiles rather than guffaws. Many of the elements of farce are here: mistaken identity, trousers dropped, at least one scantily clad lady, paper-thin and ludicrous plots. Both rely on excellent timing and slick movement, and neither disappoints. But there are no sequences of carefully choreographed entrances and exits, no near misses, and neither quite works – too silly to be ‘serious’ comedies, not quite farcical enough to be true farces. In addition, as Ayckbourn points out, in plays this short one does not have the luxury of developing complex characters so these four are two dimensional stereotypes. The best of the bunch is Sarah Stanley’s Lottie. She manages to make her believable with very well observed physical and nuanced performances.
Indeed, the whole cast make the very best of the plays. Had it not been announced on posters at the venue that Halpin was the understudy, one would be none the wiser – his performance was in the same class as the other three: he was always in just the right place with just the right look on his face. However, he was not believable as Lottie’s husband simply because he does not appear old enough to fit with the description of how Lottie and Teddy first met: she at sixth form, he a visiting speaker on lawn mowing.
In many ways these are finely crafted pieces with plot holes neatly tied up, albeit stretching credulity further than is comfortable. Enjoyable, but not quite hitting the spot.
Photo: Tony Bartholomew | Reviewed on: 15th February 2014